Zika and Panic: Beware the Scare


Zika Virus dominates the news cycles these days, but how does this mosquito-borne illness impact us in the Midwest? MPAC’s Executive Director Ruth Kerzee informs you for Mosquito Control Awareness Week.

As we move into the dog days of summer, all of us have a lot of outdoor celebrating and vacationing to look forward to-the 4th of July and camping, anyone?  Unfortunately, we face some uninvited guests such as ants or flies.  While most of these pests only annoy and pose few health risks to the average, healthy individual, mosquitoes are a different story.  They ignore the food at our favorite picnic spots, and, instead, seek our blood causing painful bites, itching, and sometimes more. As a vector organism, mosquitoes can move disease causing agents such as viruses from one animal to another causing infection and illness. This year we added Zika virus to our list of mosquito-borne illnesses.

Transmitted by the Aedes aegypti and Aedesalbopictus mosquito and widely attributed to the jump in cases of microcephaly in infants, Zika caused many around the world to rethink travel plans, forgo attendance to the Summer Olympics in Brazil, and even fear pregnancy. Since the dawn of the crisis, epidemiologists, public health officials, and other scientists turned their attention to identifying the conditions causing the devastating spike in microcephaly seen in several countries including Brazil.  Despite hearing some frightening facts about this virus, we, also, learned that many options exist to protect ourselves from the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases.

Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus mosquitoes, the only mosquito species known to carry Zika, thrive in warm and moist climates, year round. While current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data shows these Aedes species making inroads across the U.S., Midwesterners can take heart in knowing that our long cold winters provide no favors to these mosquitoes.  To date in the U.S., no confirmed cases of microcephaly or persons infected with the Zika virus have been locally acquired. All reported U.S. Zika infections and related microcephaly births were contracted by residents or visitors that traveled abroad.* I stress these facts to stave off the panic that inevitably comes with initial news of a potentially dangerous disease. Regardless, I fear people will respond to this perceived threat by spraying more insecticides causing unintended consequences for human health and the environment.

A network of Mosquito Abatement Districts, municipal mosquito abatement programs, park districts, and forest preserves already serve, if not over serve, the region in mosquito abatement activities.  Although we may disagree with some of their methods and decisions to use mosquito fogging, a host of professionals regularly monitor mosquito populations and the transmission pathways for the Zika virus to humans. Reports will spread like wildfire at any detection of an Ae. aegypti or Ae. albopictus mosquito carrying the Zika virus. Until then, the current control systems are up and running.

You can still take action to protect yourself, loved ones, and your community from mosquitoes. Don’t travel where the Zika virus is prevalent. Make sure to eliminate any standing water in and around your property – if it holds water it can breed mosquitoes.  Wear long sleeves and pants during times of mosquito activity – typically early morning and evening. Apply mosquito repellent – the Environmental Working Group lists the most effective and least toxic types.  Also, keep your bushes trimmed back as mosquitoes love to hide on the underside of leaves.  Combined with the work of professionals, these efforts can have large impacts on mosquito populations without adversely affecting the environment or human health.

Find more information about proper mosquito control methods at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization.  Both recommend a comprehensive mosquito control program and indicate that fogging insecticides provides the least effective and most expensive control.  The Xerces Society has comprehensive information on creating a mosquito management plan for communities that’s also pollinator friendly.  And, Midwest Pesticide Action Center provides some basic control tips you can take yourself.

*This blog post was originally published on June 29, 2016. Since that date Zika-infected mosquitoes have been found in the US, but not yet in the Midwestern region.

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